Karmapa by Lea Terhune

Lea Terhune. Karmapa: The Politics of Reincarnation. Boston, Mass.: Wisdom Publications, 2004. Paperback, x + 308 pages.

Anyone who is familiar with the history of Christendom knows that religion and politics are far from being mutually exclusive. The same holds true of Tibet, whose spiritual tradition has since the Communist takeover of that mountain-locked country contributed greatly to the sanity of our Western civilization. Lea Terhune, a journalist based in India, has focused on the controversial figure of the new Karmapa, the spiritual head of the Karma Kagyu lineage and after the Dalai Lama arguably the most important personage of Tibetan Buddhism. The Karma Kagyu lineage has over two million followers around the world.

In 2000, the fourteen-year-old Urgyen Trinley Dorje managed to flee Tibet and find uneasy asylum in India. He had been recognized by Tai Situ Rinpoche as the seventeenth incarnation of the Karmapa series of tulkus, which was accepted by the People’s Republic of China. Shortly after his successful escape, however, the Chinese Communists denounced the boy and put forward a new Karmapa: Thaye Dorje, who was recognized and enthroned by Shamar Rinpoche, the highest ranking Karma Kagyu lama after the Karmapa himself.

Confusion reigned supreme. In the process of disentangling the facts from the intrigue, the public was involuntarily treated to a rare glimpse into the kind of political machinations that have marked and marred Tibetan monasticism for centuries. All this has been very disturbing for Western practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism, who tend to entertain an idealized image of this spiritual tradition and its teachers.

Terhune states that she set out to give an unbiased accounting of the facts. Yet she happens to be the secretary of Tai Situ Rinpoche and unabashedly champions Urgyen Trinley as the seventeenth Karmapa. When she asked him for guidance on this complicated story, he remarked: “Some people will be pleased, some people will not.” Evidently, some people are not at all pleased with her book, because Shamar Rinpoche promptly filed a law suit against the author for slandering him and misrepresenting the facts. Thus her publication has willy-nilly become part of the politically charged controversy she writes about.

The Dalai Lama has no authority to officially recognize or appoint Karmapas. However, he did ratify Tai Situ Rinpoche’s selection of Urgyen Trinley. At the same time, the Dalai Lama, who is venerated as the fourteenthtulku of the Dalai Lama series of incarnations, observed that the tulku system is not infallible and easily lends itself to abuse.

Terhune’s book is one of four recently released works that all favor Urgyen Trinley, the son of poor nomadic parents and now the focal point of a raging controversy. Whatever one may make of it, the images of the young Urgyen Trinley reveal a striking similarity with the previous Karmapa and his self-presentation and teachings show a wisdom beyond his years. If he is not the true incarnation of the Karmapa, one would like him to be. Terhune’s portrayal of him is almost obscured by the retelling of the political intrigue surrounding Urgyen Trinley Dorje. But this was of course her principal reason for writing the book. There is enough, though, in her biographical sketch to give the reader a good sense of the young man who has inherited this challenging religious office. It would seem , he is up to the challenge.

Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in any form requires prior permission from Traditional Yoga Studies.

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